Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

François Mauriac is a Catholic writer exploring the Catholic themes of sin, grace, and redemption. Certainly these themes are exemplified in Brigitte’s false spiritual progress, contrasted as it is with the genuine grace and piety of the priest. Moreover, in the troubles of Jean, Mauriac creates a wandering soul who turns away from the love and prayers of the priest and is subsequently battered by temptation and despair. Though he does marry Michele, the marriage is depicted as a rather shaky one, punctuated by quarrels and reconciliations. Such physical love, Mauriac seems to say, is frail and finite.

The novel is also an examination of the bourgeoisie, which Mauriac knew well: Brigitte is a social snob as well as a religious one. She is happy, for example, to welcome the Comtesse de Mirbel in her home, despite that lady’s faintly unsavory reputation, because of the Comtesse’s social position. It is this same snobbery which impels Brigitte to dominate the lives of those whom she considers to be her inferiors, such as the Puybarauds. It is revealing of her attitude to social class that the Puybarauds’ love is treated much like a moral abomination.

Finally, Mauriac dramatizes, through Louis, the awakening of an adolescent to the knowledge and suffering of adulthood. Presented as a sexual innocent, Louis is slow to appreciate and understand the intensity of the love between Jean and his sister. Yet from the moment at which the relationship commences, Louis’ view of human relations seems permanently shadowed with melancholy. As he informs the reader, the only time that he has ever known that he felt deeply is when he was suffering. To be an adult, Mauriac seems to say, is to be forever emotionally dissatisfied. Only spiritual love brings peace.